I have always loved Star Wars.
In my entire life, the Undisputed Champion of movie viewings belongs to the Empire Strikes Back. This is a film I have seen in excess of 50 times, and growing up I wore out the VHS tape we had it on. I loved them all, and when the prequels came out, I jumped all over them like a drug addict. Despite being roundly criticized, I liked the prequels because they brought the Star Wars Universe back from the dead. For a lot of us, we assumed the franchise was dead and buried. It took 16 years to get from Return of the Jedi to The Phantom Menace, and another 10 years between Revenge of the Sith and The Force Awakens. Now we arrive at The Last Jedi in 2017.
I’m about to issue a statement I never thought I’d make. I recognize that I saw an amazing movie, with bulletproof cinematography, gorgeous design, and very well acted.
Yet I hated it, and that’s why it’s an amazing movie.
That’s right, I recognize that I saw an extremely high quality movie, yet I didn’t like what I saw, because it challenged me more than I wanted it to. I will get to that part in a bit.
Let’s start with the best part: Adam Driver as Kylo Ren. I’ve respected Adam as an actor ever since Girls, but it was hard to imagine him as a Star Wars villain. Of course, I remember thinking the same thing about Heath Ledger as well when he was cast as the Joker, and we all know how amazing that turned out to be. Kylo Ren in the Force Awakens had a monumental, and really insurmountable challenge: Be a bad guy on par with arguably the greatest cinematic villain of all time: Darth Vader. How can you possibly out-badass, and out intimidate Vader, or even Darth Maul from the prequels? The answer is: You don’t. In an incredibly smart move, the filmmakers went in the opposite direction. Instead of a faceless, intimidating force of nature antagonist, they made a highly unstable, vulnerable, and emotional character in Kylo Ren. His temper tantrums, and instability, as reflected by his jagged, unrefined light saber brought a whole new villain to the pantheon of Star Wars, and one that I love. And they could not have chosen a better actor than Adam Driver. He is able to communicate unbelievable conflict and instability, just through a facial tick, the way he moves an eye, or twitches a facial muscle communicates a deeply troubled and unstable character that wants desperately to wipe away the pain of his past.
As great as Adam Driver is, he is matched in the acting department by Mark Hamill. Hamill brings a deeply broken Luke Skywalker to the screen, that is absolutely riveting. Unfortunately, herein lies the controversy. The majority of the hate this movie is getting revolves around the portrayal of Luke. Those of us that grew up on Luke Skywalker being the quintessential hero got served a harsh dose of cinematic writing by evolving him into a broken hermit who is essentially responsible in part for the transformation of Ben Solo into Kylo Ren. Part of the reason I and others that didn’t “like” the movie cite, is that we didn’t get the Luke Skywalker we grew up with. This is why I admit it’s a great movie. It challenged us. Part of life is not getting what you expect, or you think you deserve. The reason this movie is “good” is that it challenges what you think a Star Wars movie is.
You don’t get ultra-badass Vader or Maul, you get whiny and unstable Kylo.
You don’t get Luke riding in on the white horse, mowing down legions, you get force-less brooding Luke on an island.
You don’t get the mega evil mastermind Snoke, who is wiped out easily, and suddenly.
And on and on. The reason this movie is so polarizing is that it doesn’t go how you think it’s going to, exactly as Luke says. The Star Wars tropes you expect are wiped out, one by one. For the long time Star Wars fan, this movie is an uncomfortable reminder that life doesn’t play out how you want at all times. The central theme of the movie, played out over and over, is failure. Everyone fails, repeatedly, over and over. Even rewatching the old movies, failure and recovery from it is an overriding theme. Yoda even says it:
“The greatest teacher, failure is.”
The other interesting quote that’s applicable to the themes of the movie is delivered by Kylo Ren:
“Let the past die, kill it if you have to.”
Which is exactly what the filmmakers do: Kill the past of the franchise to move forward. As they march inexorably toward the death of virtually every character we grew up with, we are reminded of the mortality of our own lives. In this, it does it’s job incredibly well, making long term fans come to terms with the way things are by shattering everything they thought they knew. So let’s break this down:
Adam Driver and Mark Hamill.
Unbelievable cinematography in a few key spots.
Gorgeous new planets: Red Minerals and Casinos.
Great new aliens: The Porgs, Caretakers, Crystal Foxes, and some horse type creature.
Takes incredible risks, and doesn’t play it safe.
Rey is way too perfect, boring, and powerful.
Uncomfortable use of Luke.
Finn and Rose are wasted in the middle of the movie, although it does reinforce the “failure” narrative.
Overall, it was an amazing movie. The humor was better than you’d expect, the aliens incredibly likeable, and the scenes absolutely gorgeous. It actually does remind me of Empire, in that things don’t play out according to expectation or plan. So far in the new trilogy, my main complaint is Rey. She is a classic “Mary Sue” character, i.e. the perfect character with no discernible flaws who is better than everyone at everything. Daisy Ridley is a serviceable actress, but she isn’t given much character or flaws to work with. This brings me to the political stuff. How politically liberal is the movie? Not very surprisingly. I do see a general tendency in 2017 Hollywood to be scared of writing compelling, flawed women and minorities, but that’s about it.
Overall, the Last Jedi is a triumph, partly because they could have played it safe, but went all in. They gave me very little I actually wanted, but in that is the success. To challenge jaded cinephiles that have loved movies for decades is an achievement. They could have churned out a by the numbers Star Wars sequel, everyone would have loved it and moved on. Instead, they took major risks, and moved forward.
I look forward to not waiting 16 years for the next one.
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